I saw Jilla later that day, as the sun was setting. I was back at the standpipe and the temperature had dropped suddenly, forcing me to wear both new fleece jacket and Teren’s coat over the top of it. Jilla was walking up the hill past the Zabowski’s place, from the direction of the stream and I would have bet a million kronas that I was right earlier, that she’d been in the forest alone.
At first she seemed hardly to hear me, then she slowed and looked up, as if in surprise to see where she was. “It’s almost dark.”
I nodded and turned off the standpipe tap, holding my red plastic bucket awkwardly away from my body. It was heavy and my arms shook with the effort. I slowly walked along the plank and stepped off onto the hard ground, still frozen under the grass.
“Will you come to the woodshed later?”
Jilla turned towards Jan Creusel’s place. “I’ve got something new to tell you.”
* * * * *
“A long time ago, when no-one travelled outside of their village their whole lives, a magician appeared one evening at the door of the church. Everyone inside stopped talking, and the magician walked into the church with his black cloak and strode up the aisle. He told everyone that he could produce sunlight at night, heat from rocks and the smell of cinammon from sand.”
In the woodshed, we had lit three candles for more warmth and our gloved hands were held out to them.
“Everyone left the church to follow the magician to the village square. No-one had seen a magician before, and no-one thought he could do the things he said he could. But one by one, the magician conjured those things: he shaped a glowing globe of light between his outstretched hands, that bounced and shimmered in the faces of the villagers. He picked a pebble from the ground and warmed it in hands until it glowed red, but he wasn’t burned. Then he took a small glass vial from his cloak and poured out a tiny pyramid of sand on the palm of his hand, and when he blew it into the air, the smell of cinnamon wafted out on the breeze.”
I looked up from the candles at Jilla. She stared at the three flames in front of her.
“All the people who saw the magic were afraid and they wished they hadn’t followed him to the square. There was a long silence and all they could smell was cinnamon, stronger and stronger.
But the magician hadn’t told them he could also make them forget. And an hour later, he was gone, and the villagers found themselves sitting back in the church, with no memory of either him or his magic.” I stared at her.
“For a long while afterwards, people kept remarking on how there was a smell of cinnamon in the air and wondering where it came from. But then they even forgot that it hadn’t been there always, and they didn’t notice it any more. They told themselves it had always smelled like this, and that this was the way the world smelled. The magician never came back, and his grains of sand are still floating in the air around the village even now.”
* * * *
The next day I saw Jan Creusel as I was making one of my many fact-finding tours of the village. He smiled at me, and I was in such a mood of optimism that I found myself telling him I’d seen Jilla the previous evening.
“Ah, so it was you in my woodshed was it?”
I nodded, realising he knew we went there often.
“And did Jilla have a new story for you?”
“Yes. About a magician.”
“A magician?” Jan paused for a second. “Did it have a happy ending?”
I thought about that for a while. Most of Jilla’s stories were like listening to an accident happen by tiny increments.
“I don’t know.”
Jan nodded at me, unsmiling. Then he continued on his way down the hill, leaving me standing there thinking of the smell of cinnamon.
As I stood staring into space the sound of voices, loud and celebratory cut through my thoughts. I raced up the hill to see what was going on, and saw Conrad, one of Mani’s long-time foes, coming the other way at a great pace. He had always been friendly to me, so I shouted to him as he passed.
“What is it?”
“It’s Dr Blenvic – he’s back!”
But Conrad had gone already, racing back home to be the first with the news. I saw the doctor then, surrounded by old friends and well-wishers, dressed in his army jacket, his own, not borrowed, and carrying a mammoth duffel bag of grey khaki. He had been called up early as all medical professionals were, and no-one had heard anything from him since the day he left. As time passed, death was assumed to have caught him. It seemed a miracle that almost five years later he could walk back into the village, unharmed, smiling as if he had left the previous week.
I rushed to see him up close, but the crowd around him was such that I couldn’t get anywhere near him, so I climbed up onto a broken wall to look at him over the hats of the well-wishers. He looked older, weather-coarsened and thin. This was no surprise. What seemed supernatural was his similarity to the person he had been when he left. The same eyes, the same walk, the voice that was deep, reassuring to anxious mothers and consolatory to their husbands. Here he was, hugging the men, kissing the women, kneeling down to the kids who were too young to know who this celebrity was.
Amidst the screams and shouts of happiness and the group of smiling faces, Dr Blenvic suddenly looked up at me, standing on the wall of what used to be a house. We looked in each other’s eyes for what seemed to me to be a long time.
Time can do strange things sometimes; I’d noticed before that it sped up and slowed down, that it wobbled on its course round the clock when no-one was looking. Now it took on the soapy telescopic coating of a dream. The doctor saw me – a thin boy in a second-hand coat standing on the ruins of a house that had been a beautiful red-tiled building the last time he’d seen it. I knew that I was looking at a ghost. He nodded to me, holding my gaze, and after a second I jumped down from the wall, and ran to tell Granma.